A Brief History of the Business Card

Business cards have come a long way in the past 500 years, but they still serve the same function — they help professionals ascertain as much information they can possibly get from a 3.5 x 2 inch piece of paper. These days, one’s business card is expected to hold the name of the card holder, their title, their company, their location, and any other relevant contact information such as address, email, telephone, and anything else that can fit (QR codes, we’re looking in your direction). However, this tradition didn’t start in the modern day era of business or even during the Industrial Revolution. A business card actually has a long history that likely stems back to the fifteenth century in China and the seventeenth century in Europe.

But before we begin, no business card discussion will be complete without including a reference to this scene from American Psycho. So let’s get that out of the way now.


Visiting cards – Fifteenth Century China

In fifteenth century China, visiting cards, also known as calling cards or name cards, were quite popular and played a significant role in social interactions and networking. These cards served as a way for individuals to introduce themselves, convey social status, and enable future communication.

Visiting cards in China were typically made of paper or silk and featured elegant designs, intricate calligraphy, and sometimes even illustrations. They were typically small in size, making them easy to carry and present during social encounters – much like business cards today.

The content on these cards varied, but they usually included the individual’s name, ancestral lineage, and sometimes their official title or occupation. The cards often showcased the person’s social standing, as well as their affiliation with prominent families or influential groups.

When visiting someone’s home or attending social gatherings, individuals would present their cards to the host or hostess. This exchange of cards was accompanied by formal etiquette and rituals. The host would carefully examine the card, paying attention to the person’s name, social status, and other relevant information. This process helped the host determine the appropriate level of respect and treatment to offer the visitor.

Visiting cards were not only used for social purposes but also for professional networking. Merchants, government officials, and scholars used these cards to establish connections and lay the foundation for future business. The exchange of visiting cards allowed individuals to maintain a network of contacts and keep track of social connections in a hierarchical society.

Seventeenth to Nineteenth Century Europe

Moving along a few hundred years and across the continent, During the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries in Europe, business cards played a crucial role in social and professional interactions. They served as a formal means of introduction and networking among individuals from various social classes and professions.

Business cards during this era were typically larger in size compared to the business cards we’re used to today. They were printed on high-quality cardstock and featured elegant designs, including ornate typography, decorative borders, and sometimes engraved illustrations or coats of arms.

The content on these cards varied depending on the individual and their profession. They typically included the person’s name, title or occupation, and the name of their business or company. Additionally, the cards might feature their address, contact information, and sometimes even a brief description of their expertise or services.

The exchange of business cards followed a formal protocol. When visiting someone’s home or office, individuals would present their card to the servant or secretary. The card would then be delivered to the recipient, who would examine it to gather information about the visitor’s identity, social standing, and professional background. This was effectively the “call screening” of the time.

Business cards served as a way to establish credibility, trustworthiness, and to show off who they were in general. They allowed individuals to demonstrate their status, professionalism, and association with prestigious organizations. The design and quality of the card often reflected the person’s social standing and wealth. If you didn’t watch that video at the top of this blog yet, now would be a good time to go check that out.

Furthermore, these cards were used not only for immediate communication but also for future reference. People collected and preserved business cards as a way to maintain a network of contacts and to remember important acquaintances. These collections sometimes formed the basis for professional or social clubs, where individuals with similar interests or affiliations would gather.

The Industrial Revolution

During the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, business cards continued to play a significant role in networking and establishing professional connections. This era, marked by technological advancements and rapid industrialization, brought about changes in the design and purpose of business cards.

Business cards during the Industrial Revolution maintained a formal and professional tone. They were typically smaller in size compared to the ones used in previous centuries, resembling the standard 3.5 x 2-inch dimensions we see today. These cards were usually printed on sturdy cardstock, though the designs were simpler compared to earlier periods.

The content on these cards primarily included the individual’s name, job title or occupation, the name of their company or business, and their contact information such as address and phone number. As industrialization progressed, the inclusion of additional details like factory locations and production specialties became more common.

Business cards during this period served as essential tools for networking and establishing business relationships. The rise of factories, manufacturing, and trade necessitated efficient communication and connection among professionals. Business cards allowed individuals to quickly exchange information, enabling potential clients, suppliers, and business partners to remember and contact each other.

The design of business cards during the Industrial Revolution began to incorporate elements of industrialization, reflecting the changing times. While the overall style remained relatively formal, some cards featured illustrations or engravings related to machinery, factories, or products. These design choices aimed to convey expertise, specialization, and professionalism in the industrial landscape.

The exchange of business cards continued to follow a formal etiquette, often occurring during face-to-face meetings, business gatherings, or trade fairs. Individuals would exchange their cards as a gesture of introduction and to establish a foundation for future communication and collaboration.

Modern Day

Business cards today have evolved to meet the needs of the contemporary business landscape and incorporate various design elements and technologies.

In terms of size and format, modern business cards generally adhere to the standard dimensions of 3.5 x 2 inches, although some opt for slightly larger or unique shapes to stand out. While these designs seem cool, functionality often gets in the way as they’re either too small (and get lost) or too bulky (and get lost).

The content on modern business cards revolves around providing key contact information and branding details. It usually includes the individual’s name, job title, company name or logo, phone number, email address, and website. Additional information such as social media handles, physical address, and a brief tagline or description of services may also be included. Some creative cards also take the opposite approach and include just a name and email. It really depends on the target audience.

From a graphic design perspective, modern business cards offer a wide range of creative options. Many professionals strive to make their cards visually appealing and memorable. This can be achieved through unique typography, color schemes, creative graphics, and high-quality printing techniques. Some cards even incorporate special finishes like embossing, foil stamping, or spot UV coatings to add a touch of elegance. With many presses offering full-color cards as a standard, the sky’s the limit for design options now.

Digital advancements have also influenced modern business cards. Some newer cards aren’t meant to be given out, but simply placed next to a smart phone. Once the card is close enough it will add contact information directly to the person’s phone. They typically include contact information, links to social media profiles, and sometimes interactive features like videos or portfolio samples. These are facing some opposition though as people are still protective of any data going straight to their devices, especially from someone they just met.

Over the past 500 years of the business card lifespan, the constant has been the same: they serve as a tangible reminder of the individual and their services, allowing potential clients or collaborators to easily reach out in the future.

What’s your card look like? We’d love to take a look. Feel free to drop us a line and attach a picture of your card. Maybe we’ll add a top 10 to this blog later on. Come back soon and see.



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